Key of valor, p.15
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       Key of Valor, p.15

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  Zoe’s like a shield.

  Run! She heard the command explode in her head, jerking her out of the shock of watching the battle. She shifted her grip on the branch and, using all her strength, swung hard.

  She aimed for the face, and aimed true. The force of the contact had her arms vibrating, but she swung again.

  “See how you like it,” she muttered mindlessly under her breath. “See how you like it.” And slammed wood against flesh and bone.

  The bear screamed, stumbled back. As the wounded buck bunched, dipped its head for a killing charge, the bear vanished in a swirl of filthy mist.

  Gasping, Zoe went down on her knees in the bloody snow. Her stomach clutched, had her retching uselessly. When the nausea and the wracking shudders eased, she lifted her head.

  The white buck stood, knee-deep in the snow. The gouges on his side glistened with blood, but his eyes were steady and unblinking on hers.

  “We’ve got to get out of here. It might come back.” She pushed to her feet and, swaying, dug into her shoulder bag. She came up with a pack of tissues. “You’re hurt, you’re bleeding. Let me help you.”

  But he stepped back as she approached. Then he bent his forelegs, lowered his great head in what was unmistakably a bow.

  And vanished, in a shimmer of light.

  The snow was gone, and the path to the field was clear once again. She looked down where the blood had stained the ground, and saw a single yellow rose.

  She bent to retrieve it, and let herself weep a little as she limped out of the trees.

  “THEY’RE just scratches, but some of them are nasty.” Malory pressed her lips together hard as she swabbed the cuts on Zoe’s flesh. “I’m glad you came straight here.”

  “I thought . . . No, I didn’t think.” She was feeling a little drunk, Zoe realized, a little light-headed and punchy now that she was back. “I just drove here, didn’t even consider going home first. Jesus, I hardly know how I got here. It’s all one big blur. I needed to see you and Dana, tell you about it, make sure you were both all right.”

  “We weren’t the ones off in the woods alone, fighting monsters.”

  “Hmm.” Zoe tried to ignore the sting of antiseptic.

  She’d driven back to the Valley in a fog that had kept her numb. She hadn’t started to shake until she’d walked through the doors of Indulgence.

  She’d had to shower. She’d needed hot water, soap. Clean. The need for it had been so urgent that she’d asked her friends to come up to the bathroom with her so she could explain while she washed.

  Now, wearing only her underwear, perched on a stool in the bathroom with Malory tending her hurts and Dana off to get her some clean clothes from home, it all felt like a dream.

  “He couldn’t even come after me like a man. Fucking coward. Guess I showed him.”

  “Guess you did.” Overcome, Malory dropped her forehead to the crown of Zoe’s head. “Oh, God, Zoe, you could’ve been killed.”

  “I thought I was going to be, and I have to tell you, it seriously pissed me off. I’m not trying to make light of it.” She gripped Malory’s hand. “It was awful. It was just awful—and, and primal. I wanted to kill. When I picked up that branch, I was ready to kill. I was hungry for it. I’ve never felt like that before.”

  “Here, let me get these cuts on your back. This one just missed your faerie.”

  “Good faerie today.” She winced at the burn. “The buck, Mal. He saved me. If he hadn’t charged that way, I don’t know what might’ve happened. And he was bleeding, he was hurt. Hurt a lot more than I am. I wish I knew if he’s okay.”

  She snorted out a laugh. “I was going to mop him up with a bunch of Kleenex. How dopey is that?”

  “I bet he didn’t think it was.” Wanting to take inventory of her friend’s hurts, Malory stepped back. “There. That’s as good as it’s going to get.”

  “My face isn’t too bad, is it?” She got up cautiously, turned to the mirror over the sink. “No, it’s okay. I guess I’m snapping back if I’m worried about my face.”

  “You look beautiful.”

  “Well, some lipstick and blush would help.” She shifted her gaze, met Malory’s in the mirror. “He didn’t beat me.”

  “No, he sure as hell didn’t.”

  “I got somewhere. I don’t know exactly where, but I did something right today, took some step, and it’s got him worried.”

  She turned around. “I’m not going to lose. Whatever it takes, I’m not going to lose.”

  IN the high tower of Warrior’s Peak, Rowena mixed a potion in a silver cup. However troubled her mind, her hands were quick and sure. “You’ll need to drink all of this.”

  “I’d rather a whiskey.”

  “You’ll have one after.” She glanced over to where Pitte stood, scowling out the window. He was stripped to the waist, and the gouges on his side were red and raw in the light.

  “Once you’ve taken the potion, I should be able to treat the wound, and draw the poison out. Even with this, you’ll be tender for a few days.”

  “And so will he. More than tender, I’d say. More of his blood spilled than mine. She wouldn’t run,” he recounted. “She stayed and fought.”

  “And I thank all the fates for it.” She stepped over, held out the cup. “Don’t frown at it. Drink it, Pitte, all down, and you’ll not only have whiskey, but I’ll see that there’s apple pie for dessert.”

  He had a weakness for apple pie, and for the look in his lover’s eyes. So he took the cup, tossed back the contents. “Damnation, Rowena, can you make it any more foul?”

  “Sit now.” She opened her hand, held out a thick glass. “And drink your whiskey.”

  He drank, but he didn’t sit. “The battle lines have changed again. Kane knows now we won’t stand back and do nothing, bound by the laws he’s already broken.”

  “He risks all now, too. He banks on the power he’s gathered, what he’s twisted and surrounds himself with. If the spell can be broken, Pitte, if he can be defeated, he won’t go unpunished. I have to believe there is still justice in our world.”

  “We’ll fight.”

  She nodded. “We’ve made our choice, too. What will you do if this choice keeps us here? If this choice means we can never go home again?”

  “Live.” He stared out the window. “What else?”

  “What else?” she replied, and laying her hand on his wound, she cooled the burn.

  Chapter Eleven

  HE had to work at being calm, to strap himself down so he didn’t march into Zoe’s house and start spewing orders. That, Brad knew, was his father’s way.

  And it was damned effective.

  Still, as much as he loved and admired his father, he didn’t want to be his father.

  All he really wanted at that moment was to assure himself that Zoe was all right. Then to make sure she stayed that way.

  And there was Simon to think of, Brad reminded himself as he pulled up in front of Zoe’s house. He couldn’t go shoving his way in, spouting off about how reckless she’d been in running off on her own, putting herself in the crosshairs, with the boy around. He wasn’t going to frighten a child while venting his own fears and frustrations.

  He would just wait until Simon was in bed, then vent.

  An instant before he knocked, barking exploded inside the house. One thing you could say for Moe, nobody snuck up on you when he was around. He could hear the boy’s shouts, his laughter, then the door swung open.

  “You should ask who it is first,” Brad told him.

  Simon rolled his eyes even as Moe leaped up to greet Brad. “I looked out the window and saw your car. I know all that stuff. I’m playing baseball, bottom of the seventh.” He grabbed Brad’s hand and pulled him toward the living room. “You can take over the other team. You’re only two runs down.”

  “Sure, bring me in when I’m two down. Listen, I need to talk to your mom.”

  “She’s up in her room, sewing something. Come on,
I’ve only got a few minutes before she calls the game and sends me to the showers.”

  The kid was a gem, Brad reflected, with eyes that made you want to give him the world. “I really have to talk to your mother, so why don’t we schedule a game for later in the week? Head to head, pal, and I will rock your world.”

  “As if.” He might have thought about arguing, but gauged his ground. If Brad kept his mother talking, she might forget when his hour was up. “A whole nine innings? You promise?”


  His smile went sly. “Can we play at your house, on the big TV?”

  “I’ll see what I can do.”

  With the crowd in the video bleachers cheering again, Brad started toward Zoe’s room. He heard the music before he reached the doorway. She had it on low, and he could just catch her voice as she murmured more than sang along with Sarah McLachlan. Then the voices were drowned out by the hammering hum he recognized as a sewing machine.

  She was working with a portable set up on a table in front of the side window. The framed photographs and painted chest he remembered she kept on it were moved to her dresser now to make room for the machine and what looked like miles of fabric.

  It was an essentially female room—very Zoe-esque. Not fussy, not fancy, but very feminine in its little touches. Bowls filled with potpourri, pillows edged with lace, the old iron bed given a luster with pewter paint and a colorful quilt.

  She’d framed old magazine ads for face powder, perfume, hair products, and fashion and had them grouped on the wall in a kind of quirky, nostalgic gallery.

  She sewed, he noted, like someone who knew what she was doing, in a steady, competent rhythm while her foot—clad in a thick gray sock, tapped to the music that jingled out of the clock radio by the bed.

  He waited until she’d stopped the machine and begun to rearrange the material.


  “Hmm?” She shifted in the chair and gave him the blank look of a woman whose mind was considerably occupied. “Oh. Bradley, I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t hear you . . .” She glanced at the clock. “I was trying to get these slipcovers finished before it’s time to get Simon ready for bed. I guess I’m not going to make it.”

  “Slipcovers?” His train of thought took a detour. “You’re making slipcovers?”

  “People do.” Irritation sizzled under the tone as she tugged the material. “I’m covering a sofa for the salon. I wanted something friendly and fun, and I think these big hydrangeas do the trick. Color works, too. And there’s nothing wrong with homemade.”

  “That’s not what I meant. I’m just amazed that I know somebody who would have a clue how to sew something like this.”

  Her back went up. She knew it was stupid, but it went up anyway. “I imagine most of the women you know have seamstresses, so they don’t have to know one side of a sewing machine from another.”

  He walked over to lift a length of the fabric, and studied her speculatively. “If you’re going to be determined to misinterpret everything I say, we’re going to fight about something entirely different from what I came over to fight about.”

  “I don’t have time to fight with you about anything. I need to get this done while I have the chance.”

  “You’ll have to make time. I’ve got—” He broke off, scowled over at the clock radio as the alarm went off.

  “I can’t make what I don’t have,” she shot back and rose to turn off the alarm. “That’s set so I know when it’s time to get Simon up here for his bath. That process takes the best part of half an hour, if he cooperates. And it’s Monday, and we read together for half an hour before bed on Mondays. After that, I’ve got at least another hour of sewing, then—”

  “I get the picture.” Just, he thought as he put his hands in his pockets, as he knew when a woman was determined to brush him off. “I’ll handle Simon’s bath and the reading.”

  “You’ll . . . what?”

  “I can’t sew, but I know how to bathe and how to read.”

  She was so baffled she couldn’t make her way around the words and into a sentence. “But it’s not—you’re not . . .” She paused, did her best to pull her thoughts together. “You didn’t come over here to take care of Simon.”

  “No, I came over to yell at you—which you already know, which is why you’re annoyed. But I can yell later. I imagine Simon’s got the bath-and-bed routine down. We’ll do fine. Finish your slipcovers,” he said as he started out of the room. “We’ll fight when we’re both done.”

  “I don’t—”

  But he was gone, and already calling for her son.

  It was pretty tough to stick to an offense with a man who figured her out that neatly. But still. She started to go after him, then stopped herself. Simon was already launching into his “five more minutes” plea.

  Her lips quirked in a very smug mother’s smile. Why not just let Bradley get a taste of the nighttime ritual of convincing a nine-year-old he needed to wash and go to bed? Odds were the man would throw up his hands in defeat long before it was done.

  Which meant he would be too frazzled to worry about arguing with her—or lecturing her about going off on her own that morning.

  Which she’d had a right to do, she reminded herself. More, she’d had an obligation. But she just didn’t have the time or inclination to get into all that tonight.

  So, Simon would wear him out, he’d go on home, and she’d have a quiet evening to finish her work and plan her strategy for the next few days.

  Plus, she decided as she walked back to the sewing machine, she might just get the slipcovers knocked out.

  She listened to their voices, the odd harmony of man and boy, then set up for the next running seam. One of them would shout for her when they hit impasse.

  She heard laughter—maniacal on Simon’s part, and smirked. Figuring her time was going to be very limited, she concentrated on the task at hand.

  She lost track of time, and didn’t surface until she realized just how quiet her house had become. No raised voices, no barking dog.

  Concerned, she pushed away from the machine and hurried to the bathroom across the hall. It appeared that a very wild, very wet war had been waged. Towels were sopping up some of the water on the floor, and there was a skim of froth in the tub, telling her Simon had opted for bubbles along with the convoy of plastic vehicles and army of plastic men scattered in the tub.

  Bradley’s suit jacket hung on the hook on the back of the door. Absently, she took it off, smoothing the bump the hook had put in the collar.

  Armani, she noted when she glanced at the label. That was surely a first. Italian designs didn’t generally hang on her bathroom hook.

  Carrying it with her, she walked toward Simon’s room. She could hear him reading—his voice taking on that weight it did when he was sleepy.

  Careful to be quiet, she peeked in the door. Then simply stood, staring, with the suit jacket clutched to her heart.

  Her son was in bed, on the top bunk. He wore his Harry Potter pajamas, and his hair was shiny from its shampooing.

  Moe was stretched out on the bottom bunk, his head on the pillow, and already snoring.

  And the man whose jacket she held was up in the bunk with her boy, his back braced against the wall, his eyes—like Simon’s—on the book.

  Simon was nuzzled up against him, his head resting on Brad’s shoulder while he read Captain Underpants out loud.

  Her heart simply fell. She didn’t try to stop it, wasn’t capable of launching any sort of defense. In that single moment, she loved both of them with everything she had.

  Whatever happened tomorrow, she would always have this picture of them in her mind. And so, she knew, would Simon. For that single moment, she owed Bradley Vane more than she could ever pay.

  Not wanting to disturb them, she eased back and slipped quietly down to the kitchen.

  She put on coffee, got cookies out of the jar. If he was going to yell at her, they might as we
ll be civilized about it. When they were finished, and she was alone, she would try to think clearly once more. She would try to figure out what loving Bradley meant.

  Because she was listening for him, she heard him come down the little hall. She reached for the pot to keep her hands busy, and was pouring the coffee when he came in.

  “He give you much trouble?”

  “Not especially. You finish the sewing?”

  “Close enough.” She turned to offer him the mug, and her heart bobbled again. He was barefoot, with the sleeves of his beautiful blue shirt rolled to his elbows. The cuffs of his pants were damp.

  “I know you’re angry with me, and I guess you think you’ve got some reasons to be. I was going to be angry back, and say all these things about running my own life and doing what I promised to do.”

  She ran her hand over the shoulders of the jacket, which she’d draped on the back of a chair. “Since I’ve been thinking about it for a while, I had some pretty good stuff to say. But I just don’t feel like saying it now. So I wish you weren’t angry.”

  “I wish I wasn’t either.” He glanced at the table. “So, are we going to sit down and argue over coffee and cookies?”

  “I don’t think I can argue with you, Bradley, not after you put my boy to bed that way.” Emotion swamped her. “But I’ll listen while you yell at me.”

  “You sure know how to punch the stuffing out of a good fight.” He sat, waited for her to sit across from him. “Let me see your arms.”

  Saying nothing, she pushed up the sleeves of her sweatshirt to reveal the cuts and scratches. When the silence dragged out, she tugged them down again.

  “It was just briars, that’s all,” she said quickly. “I’ve had worse from gardening in my own yard.”

  She stopped, struck to silence by the cold glint in his eyes when they shifted to her face. “It could have been worse. A hell of a lot worse. You were alone, for Christ’s sake. What possessed you to go driving off to West Virginia and tromping around the woods by yourself?”

  “I grew up there, Bradley. I grew up in those woods. It’s not wilderness once you cross the Pennsylvania border.” To give herself something to do, she lit the three-wick candle she’d made for the kitchen table, one that smelled of blueberries. “My mother lives there in the trailer court beside those woods. Simon was very likely conceived in those woods.”

  “You want to go visit your mother or your childhood stomping grounds, that’s fine. But these are not normal circumstances. You didn’t say a thing to me about going there this morning.”

  “I know I didn’t. If I had, you’d have wanted to go with me, and I didn’t want you to. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings, but I wanted to go on my own. I needed to.”

  He swallowed the resentment, though it scorched his throat. “You didn’t let Dana or Malory know where you would be either. You took off without telling anyone, and you were attacked.”

  “It didn’t occur to me to tell anyone. That makes you mad,” she said with a nod. “You’ll just have to be mad, then. I made an agreement. I gave my word, and I’m trying to do what I promised to do, and you can’t sit there and tell me you wouldn’t do the same. Going back there this morning was part of that. I think I was supposed to go. I think I needed to.”


  “Yes. I’ve got some pride and some shame along with the rest of it. I’m entitled to what I feel, Bradley. Do you think I wanted to take you along, in your Armani suit, to that broken-down trailer?”

  “That’s not fair, Zoe.”

  “No, it’s not fair, but it’s the truth. My mama already thinks I’ve got airs or something. If I’d gone in there with you . . . Well, just look at you.”

  She waved a hand and nearly laughed at the exasperation on his face. “You got rich boy all over you, Bradley, in or out of that Italian jacket.”

  “For Christ’s sake,” was all he could think to say.

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